Note: This is a repost from Memorial Day 2016… and 2013…. which, sadly, is still relevant.
I wear a set of dog tags every day.
If I don’t know you that well, I’ll say no, they’re not mine, they’re for a family friend. If I do know you, I’ve probably told you the story a few times, so bear with me if I tell it again.
I wear a set of dog tags every day because a 22-year-old sergeant cared enough about my cousin to die for him.
They were best friends. The lieutenant came from New York, an intellectual, a gifted writer and student of law. The sergeant came from a tiny town in Texas, never finished high school, and had once been threatened with a BCD for stealing a car. The lieutenant was well-known in his company and adored by his platoon; the sergeant was well-known for being cold and difficult to manage. When the sergeant was first placed in the lieutenant’s platoon, the most notable thing about him was a tropical disease he’d contracted while serving with the Raiders.
Yet, when the sergeant was released from the hospital following the company’s first battle, the lieutenant went over the heads of his superiors to make the sergeant his second in command, passing over several more seasoned and tractable NCOs.
What brought them together, I don’t know. Both had lost their fathers. Both were experiencing girl trouble – one with a fiancee, the other with a wife. Both had a slightly unconventional approach to being a Marine, but both cared fiercely for their friends.
“The mutual admiration and respect which grew between the two was obvious,” wrote another officer, “and they were a strongly attached pair who worked together as well as any and better than most.”
And thus they came to the island of Saipan in 1944. They fought together for twenty days. The sergeant, already decorated with the Navy Cross, was recommended for a Silver Star. The lieutenant, leading his mortar section, was forced to live with decisions whereby his teenaged troops lived or died.
On the twentieth day, July 5, the lieutenant saw people moving in an area he had been ordered to target with his mortars. They were women and children, displaced civilians who had fled their homes and hidden in caves, terrified of the Americans.
The lieutenant and the sergeant couldn’t bring themselves to open fire. “As always,” the company commander said, “they asked if they could take a patrol forward and help the natives back to our lines. They soon returned with many wounded women and children. There were many more in the caves, which the Japanese soldiers wouldn’t let surrender.”
The lieutenant, wanting to help, led the way back.
A machine gun shot him. He was left painfully wounded, as bait for more Americans.
And that is what broke the sergeant. He ran, “like a lost calf after its mother,” crying out “Don’t worry, Phil, I’m coming for you.”
Those were his last words. The same machine gun opened fire, and the sergeant fell at the side of his best friend.
Phil Wood and Arthur Ervin died together. They were buried together. They should have come home together. But they did not.
Arthur Ervin was buried without any means of identification. Through a clerical error or simple incompetence, he was listed as “missing,” his remains declared “unknown,” and buried under an anonymous stone in Manila.
In 2011, a fellow researcher helped to locate the site. Dental records were compared, circumstantial evidence was analyzed, diagrams and data were studied. A relative was found, willing to give a DNA sample. The case process stalled. Started. Stalled again. Urgency and energy were met with a cursory acknowledgement, with indifference, with silence.
It has been almost seven years. Since then, much has changed. The old government agency is gone, replaced by a new one with its own share of foibles but more willing (however grudgingly) to accept the assistance of outside researchers. The rate of recoveries has increased exponentially, from remote islands and crash sites to exhumations of unknowns in American military cemeteries. Some, even, in Manila, where Ervin (and two of his comrades – Robert Johnston and William Ragsdale) still wait for someone to put the pieces together.
The small fraction of the world that knew Arthur Ervin in life has almost vanished. His memory has nearly been forgotten.
I wear a set of dog tags every day to remind myself what this young man gave up for my family, how lucky I have been to live so much more of life than he ever knew, and how we have failed him by not bringing him home.
I will take them off one day – when I stand in some quiet, peaceful spot and read his name on his gravestone.
I will leave the dog tags with him, and let him rest in peace.